Experts Urge More Support for Ukraine in Fight With Russia

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, second from right, speak with soldiers during a military training at a military base in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov, 28, 2018. Russia and Ukraine traded blame after Russian border guards on Sunday opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels and eventually seized them and their crews. The incident put the two countries on war footing and raised international concern. (Mykola Lazarenko, Presidential Press Service via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Defense Department said Tuesday it will send $250 million more in military equipment to war-torn Ukraine.

The announcement – which brings the U.S. security assistance up to $1.5 billion – came just hours before members of Congress convened to assess how to continue supporting Ukraine in its fight for sovereignty from its powerhouse neighbor Russia.

Ukraine represents ground zero in the U.S.-Russia conflict, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said in Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Senators agreed on continued need for U.S. support of Ukraine following the election of President Volodymyr Zelensky in May.

Zelensky swept into office with 73 percent of the vote while promising a new surge of diplomatic efforts to bring Ukraine into the European Union.

A focus on reviving ceasefire talks between the newly elected president and Russian President Vladimir Putin underscored the senators’ discussion Tuesday with Ambassador Kurt Volker, who represents the State Department on Ukraine negotiations.

In 2015, the two nations brokered the Minsk agreement intended to bring an immediate ceasefire between the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatist militias.

But the negotiations failed to stall bloody engagements on Europe’s doorstep, with both sides accusing the other of violating the terms.

Volker said the agreement lays out all the necessary solutions but Russia must now act.

“What’s lacking is the political will for Russia to actually implement it,” Volker said. “All of these things add up to make it more and more clear to Russia that their efforts to re-subordinate Ukraine to its sphere are not going to work.”

He also stressed the importance of a swift diplomatic action to end the violence that has plagued the Ukrainian people for nearly five years.

Volker characterized ongoing flare-ups in the eastern Donbass region as a “grinding” conflict in which a prewar population of 4 million people has dropped to 1.5 million.

Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming used his time to express concern over the planned Nord Steam 2 natural gas pipeline, calling it “Putin’s pipeline.” President Donald Trump recently threatened to place sanctions on the project, which will run 760 miles under the Baltic Sea to Germany and double the capacity of the existing Nord Steam.

Barrasso reminded the committee that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the pipeline would not continue as planned without clarity from Russia on the future of Ukraine. But U.S. officials warn the project will increase EU dependence on Russia and puts Ukraine at risk given Russia has in the past halted shipments of gas through the country.

“Moscow has shown that it has no interest in meeting the chancellor’s condition,” Herbst said, warning that Russia has openly threatened to cut off gas to Ukraine through the pipeline in December if Ukraine doesn’t pay its current gas debts to Russia and agree to a prepayment system.

Western support for Ukraine is also critical for the future security of Europe and the United States, said Alina Polyakova from the Brookings Institute, one of three Eurasia experts who joined Volker in giving testimony.

While the Russian interference in the U.S. elections may have come as a surprise in Washington, Polyakova said, Ukraine’s political sovereignty has been the target of Russian cyberattacks as early as 2004.

“Ukraine’s experience thus remains a bellwether for assessing the Russian tactics that may be deployed here in the United States or against our allies,” Polyakova said.

When asked by senators about targeted U.S. sanctions on Russian, Polyakova said the economic pressure has been very effective in sending a clear message to Moscow that escalatory behavior comes at a cost.

In addition to sweeping sanctions against hundreds of Russian individuals and entities, the Trump administration supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in 2017 to combat armored vehicles supplied by Russia.

John Herbst, director for the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, said the Javelins reduced Ukrainian casualties. Millions more in sniper rifles and radar equipment followed to strengthen the Ukrainian ground forces.

“Within the limits of Moscow’s operations in Donbass, Kiev has fought the world’s second most powerful military to a standstill,” Herbst said.

U.S. officials are now looking to build up the Ukrainian navy; current maritime capacity is near zero, according to James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation.

Volker agreed the urgent need for U.S. investment and added NATO must also maintain a defensive presence in the Black Sea for the security of its allies including Turkey and Romania.

“It is not by any means a Russian lake and I think it is important that NATO stand up to make clear all of us have an interest in a freedom of navigation,” Volker said.

In March, the State Department sent $10 million to bolster Ukraine’s naval capacity after Russia carried out what the U.S. called a “dangerous escalation and unjustified” attack on three Ukrainian vessels near the Kerch Strait.

But the international response – three months following the attack – was too late and set a bad precedent for responding to Russian aggression at sea, Polyakova said.

“We need to be constantly having situational awareness so we recognize when the next Russian poke in the eye is coming from,” she said.

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